Because of Pharma, We Take Aspirin for Headaches Instead of Chewing Bark

Because of Pharma, We Take Aspirin by Lynn R. Webster @LynnRWebsterMD

A July 8, 2016 Baltimore Sun article was titled, “Painkiller panel drops experts linked to pharma industry.” This story described how Dr. Mary Lynn McPherson, who teaches in the School of Pharmacy and specializes in hospice and end-of-life care, was removed from an FDA medical advisory panel. Three other doctors were similarly dismissed from the advisory panel that was organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

At the time, I explained in my blog post, The Reasons Democracy Invites All Perspectives, “Although the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will not officially disclose its reasons for removing Dr. McPherson and the other highly qualified doctors (such as Dr. Greg Terman who serves as president of the American Pain Society) from the panel, the ousting was apparently motivated by a letter that was sent to the panel by Senator Ron Wyden. In it, the senator pointed out that Dr. McPherson received grants and funding for medical residents worth at least $300,000.”

Political and Cultural Bias Against the Pharma Industry

This incident struck me then as an example of the political and cultural bias against the pharma industry and its consequences. It still does.

The pharmaceutical industry, in general, may be villainized because of the headline-grabbing lawsuits that have been levied against a handful of companies and for their gouging. For instance, a civil lawsuit was filed against Mylan Pharmaceuticals in September 2016 after the company increased the cost of two Epi-Pens to $600. Another lawsuit was filed against the company a month earlier for selling their product in multiples of two to increase their revenue rather than to ensure consumers’ health or safety.

As the Washington Times reported in January 2017, “High-profile hearings also turned Martin Shkreli into a national punching bag after he hiked the price of a drug from $13.50 to $750 during his time as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, and the chief of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International publicly admitted to ‘mistakes’ for buying the rights to drugs in order to hike their prices.”

Because of these stories, and similar cases, the public tends to view pharmaceutical companies as greedy and unethical criminals who are willing to compromise their customers’ health and risk their well-being because of greed.

Indeed, doctors who work as researchers with the pharma industry frequently are painted with the same brush. Because of our association with the pharmaceutical companies, we’re labeled as mercenaries whose goal is to enrich ourselves rather than to help patients.

What the Pharma Critics Miss

This viewpoint misses a couple of points. First, pharmaceutical companies exist in a capitalistic economy with the mission of developing tests, drugs, and devices to detect, treat, and cure disease. Pharma has made some missteps, but society enjoys numerous medical advances that have emerged during the past few decades because of pharma. For example, the American Cancer Society reported in 2016 that death rates from cancer had decreased by 23% over 21 years. AARP touts the top medical breakthroughs of 2015 including the faster creation of public health vaccines and the ability to fine-tune genes, and pharma was responsible for most of these developments.

Secondly, it takes time and funding to provide these medical advancements. Drug manufacturers are for-profit companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors. Without money, there can be no progress in the field of healthcare.

I hope, in the near future, pharma will be further along the path to finding safer, more affordable treatments for acute and chronic pain. It’s also my hope that we see better treatments for such serious diseases as AIDs, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, heart disease, and diabetes — the list is endless.

Disclosure Is the Key for Those Associated With Pharma

As long as doctors disclose their association with pharma, there should be no need for them to face bias or discrimination. Certainly, there is no justification for depriving the scientist of the opportunity to advise, inform, and research.

While pharma is responsible for higher drug costs than seem reasonable and documented false advertising, they can provide consumers with what they need to prevent, and cure, illnesses. Medical advances would struggle to advance without the pharmaceutical industry. When medical professionals and researchers such as Dr. Mary Lynn McPherson are villainized because of their association with pharma, it’s not fair. Worse than that, it’s counterproductive, and it deprives society of skills that can make a positive difference.

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